Thursday, August 28

Liberal arts major? Excellent!

The liberal arts have been trampled as people pile on to the STEM/CTE bandwagons. That's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and career and technical education (CTE) for those of you who have been blithely ignoring the stampede. You're probably English majors, like me. I know of this stuff because of my work in education and the necessity of being alert to sudden movement to the next shiny thing.

On the one hand, I applaud the STEM and CTE movements, especially the latter. I think the STEM activists, I mean, advocates too often see STEM too narrowly just as I think those who are promoting the need for kids to learn too code see its applications too narrowly. But then, I'm a liberal arts major.

I've been known to ponder the future value of the liberal arts degree, fearing it would be swallowed up in the technology free-for-all. Still, I've always believed in the value of thoughtful communication, research, synthesis of ideas and concepts, and critical thinking, which are traditionally strong skills of a liberal arts major.

Lo and behold! Apparently tech CEOs are pretty keen on liberal arts majors, too. Yep, tech CEOs. In fact, the vanguard of creative technology himself, Steve Jobs, once said that "for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry."
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.
 According to Stephen Yi, CEO of Media Alpha, "liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white."

With our current focus on tinkering, invention, and MakerSpace, well, liberal arts majors are pretty good at tinkering with ideas, and most of us are not afraid to examine ideas, even products, pretty closely. One of the features of programming that attracted me to it was how much it is like a puzzle. Solving a particular problem using a coding language is a puzzle and requires the ability to see multiple possibilities and to wonder "what if?". Engineers are not alone in that. Artists, architects, writers, and musicians constantly tinker with the rudiments of the crafts and many experiment with the "what if?" when they try something different, maybe even unexpected.

Liberal arts majors are also challenged by the way they might be viewed by HR personnel, now often known as Talent Management personnel. I find that somewhat amusing in this context because HR personnel have to try the hiring manager knows what he or she is looking for, and have to trust the protocols of their processes. If an online system is used, a suitable candidate may be overlooked and rejected because the coding system is looking for specific words and phrases. No small irony there that a liberal arts major who might be an excellent fit for a tech company is rejected because of technology.

Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College, is a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, an organization whose focus is independent, liberal arts colleges and universities. She is concerned about
this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems shortsighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”
This observation is a perfect segue to another Fast Company article: "Jobs of the Future: Where They Are, How to Get Them." Where are the new jobs? Good question. It's entirely possible they don't yet exist. [I've done presentations on this stuff and there's GREAT, fun research out there about the future of work.]

A liberal arts major, by the way, isn't just a bookworm. Perhaps the ease with which people misinterpret or misunderstand the liberal arts major is one of the roadblocks. Liberal arts majors aren't just English, humanities, language, arts, philosophy, and religion majors. Liberal arts majors have the liberty of being able to create programs that suit their interests and their passions, so liberal arts majors often combine something of those more traditional liberal arts with, yes, something from STEM.

Those who are liberal arts majors often have a balance of knowledge in the the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Some may be shocked by the amount of science and social science in the average 19th century novel. Because of the kind of work anyone in liberal arts must do, such majors have to have analytical, problem-solving skills, must be able to learn independently, and must be adaptable as they continue to learn and discover.

Liberal arts majors should not be dissuaded from their interests, especially because a liberal arts path may provide them otherwise inaccessible opportunities in a range of learning possibilities. Choosing a major should not be a matter of STEM vs. liberal arts, but an approach to academic and personal discovery.

Near the end of the "Jobs of the Future" article is this paragraph:
Donna Svei, executive search consultant believes the real key is to hone the skill of reinvention if they want to be a success. “Companies aren't explicitly shopping for that skill, but if they're part of inventing jobs that didn't exist five years ago, they're hiring people who know how to reinvent themselves,” she says.
In the process of academic and personal discovery, there are intersections, steps, missteps, switchbacks, and the occasional pause for breath and direction. Liberal arts majors may not be the only ones who can reinvent themselves for their work at hand, but they may be best suited to think imaginatively and critically about the "what if?" of reinvention.

Tuesday, August 26

"Breaking Bad" star of Emmys: What's that all about?

Disclaimer: I've never watched Breaking Bad. The show's premise was a complete turn-off for me: chemistry teacher learns he has inoperable cancer and decides to make the best possible meth to provide for his family. What can go wrong with that?

I know some people see this as a "morality show" akin to The Sopranos. Whatever. That's bogus rationalization to me.

Just reading the episode summaries tells me this guy Walter, who became some sort of cult hero, is making bad decision after bad decision. Okay, maybe it was good acting, but the message of the show? Seriously?? And all of these accolades from celebrities, many of whom are about to do this big televised event for Stand Up To Cancer.

Here's what's horrible to me about the Breaking Bad premise and why I never watched the show:

First, classroom teacher decides to make meth to provide for his family.
Messages: 1) Kids, just because I say drugs are bad doesn't mean I really believe drugs are bad. After all, 2) now I'm hooking up with known bad guys, drug lords, to distribute drugs to your friends. And 3) some of your friends or other kids we don't even know might die because of these amazing drugs I make with 4) one of my former students who I should have discouraged from making meth but instead decided to make a partner.

Okay, that's pretty much it. Sure, I get the guy is supposed to be desperate and the show is probably supposed to be about the consequences of his really bad decisions. So here's my other fear: some people will see that Bryan Cranston and others are getting awards for this show and won't differentiate that he's getting rewarded for his acting, for his portrayal of this character. It's entirely possible that more than a few goofballs will think he's getting rewarded for the behavior of the character and then use this show as a blueprint for being successful in making meth.

I read in Wikipedia how the show ended:
Skyler and Walter Jr. are distraught over Hank's death and hold Walter accountable. They refuse to leave Albuquerque with Walter and instead contact the police. Walter spends the next several months hiding in a cabin in New Hampshire while struggling with cancer. He returns to New Mexico in order to visit his family one final time and seek revenge against Jack. Later that night, Walter executes all of the gang's members and frees Jesse, who escapes from the compound before the police arrive. Walter realizes he is mortally wounded from a gunshot and slowly succumbs to his injury as the police search the compound.
So Walter, the former chemistry teacher, isn't ever really held accountable. He becomes a completely sympathetic character because he rescues his friend and, apparently, he cannot help that he continues to sink into this morass of questionable behavior and terrible decisions.

A review of the second season of this show:
The second season saw critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker stated "Bad is a superlatively fresh metaphor for a middle-age crisis: It took cancer and lawbreaking to jolt Walt out of his suburban stupor, to experience life again—to take chances, risk danger, do things he didn't think himself capable of doing. None of this would work, of course, without Emmy winner Cranston's ferocious, funny selflessness as an actor. For all its bleakness and darkness, there's a glowing exhilaration about this series: It's a feel-good show about feeling really bad.
Unbelievable. These are the options for the "suburban stupor"? Making meth and being responsible for contributing to the on-going drug problem of America's youth (and probably others) is a good way to "take chances, risk danger, do things he didn't think himself capable of doing"? Like murder. Nice. What about bungy jumping? Sky diving? What absurd world do entertainment critics live in? And don't get me started on the condescension expressed in the phrase "suburban stupor." Who do you think goes to the movies and watches your TV shows, you nincompoop. Mostly those people in their suburban stupors, which also says something about those of us who live in the suburbs. We spend too much time in a stupor and watch TV. Careful now.

The chapter after the story ends: Skyler and Walter, Jr. are left with nothing because that remaining $11 million dollars Walter thought he had is going to be confiscated by law enforcement officers because it is drug money and possibly evidence in other cases. They have to leave Albuquerque and change their names because otherwise they're always going to be known as the former wife and kid of that chemistry teacher who murdered people, partnered with drug lords, and helped more kids get addicted to meth. Great legacy. Great way to "provide for your family."

Maybe the acting was great and worth celebrating, but the message of this show--and far too many others--just demonstrates the paltry sense of consequences, especially unintended consequence, our society has managed to grasp.

Monday, August 25

The 7, no 12, maybe 15 things about something

Have you noticed how most titles are the 5, 6, 7, 8, 12 or whatever number of things that will change your life in some way? It's not just in education, but in just about every area of writing.

"Top 10 Superior Tech Products You'll Never Go Back From" (awkard that, with dangling preposition)

Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools

"Six Things I Learned from Teaching That I Still Use in Everyday Life"

"50 Things Cortana Can Do Right Now (Compared to Siri and Google Now)"

"7 Things We Learned from David Rees"

"10 Disney Sidekicks That Got the Axe"

"Jack Kerouac's 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Writing Modern Prose"

"38 Ideas to Use Google Drive in Class"

I don't quite understand the trend. Well, I kind of understand the trend because the numbers in a headline or title are eye-catching. But they also offer a false hope that if I can only master the 10 writing tips, I'll be the Best Writer Ever. Or if I can only do the five things the most successful people do every morning I'll be successful, too.

Over the course of a couple of weeks I kept approximate track of the number of iPad applications any teacher had to have for the classroom. It was something like 157. Based on titles of the articles, I could surmise I could be the worst teacher ever if I didn't have every one of those iPad applications. And, of course, having the applications and knowing what to do with them are two potentially tragically different things.

This reductionist approach is somewhat alarming to me. It seems we're trying to reduce essentially everything to a magic number. The top 100 of influential people, restaurants, songs in a given year, things I have to do (have to do?!?!? or what?) before I die.

I can't help but think of Stephen Covey and his 7, no 8, habits of highly effective people. Or Howard Gardner's 8, no 9, multiple intelligences.

That's the problem with lists of a definitive number of things that solves, manage, explains, develops, defines, transforms, or in some other way will The Difference.

There's always (at least) one more thing that matters.

Friday, August 22

Thinking more about expectations

I was thinking more about expectations because of all of the connotations that can to mind, but also because of all of the interesting images I discovered related to peoples' thinking of "expectations."

In performance reviews, managers are often asked to rate their subordinates using a scale with "exceeds expectations" as the highest.

Most of us know how hard it can be to meet expectations never mind exceed them. We also know that one person's interpretation of those expectations can different from someone else's.

In my experience, having lowered expectations is often key. Sure, we want events to go well. We have certain visions of how conversations might go and events might play out. That's what we hope will happen.

Sure I know there's a whole movement of people visualizing success or whatever they visualize, but they visualize that for themselves. They have zip control over anyone else, how anyone else is coming to the party. We forget that others have their own expectations of how an event might play out. The conflict of the visualizations!

I can't even imagine the millions of hours spent with therapists as patients have discussed unmet expectations, and how those unmet expectations have come to inform far too much of how individuals view themselves, their work, their lives. But I have to wonder how many of those unmet expectations are also unrealistic.

Here's another way to look at expectations and outcomes. If our expectations are too high, we will experience disappointment. Someone did say or do the "right" thing: what we thought we needed or wanted to happen. If our expectations are low, we just might experience a pleasant surprise. I'm not a therapist (and do not play one on TV), but it seems to me that this is a far better option. What might be even better is if the lowered expectations that yield a pleasant surprise or two also leads to a bit more introspection about those expectations.

In my case, lowered expectations were learned over a period of time. In a particular situation, I knew not to have high expectations because time and time and time and yes, time again, high expectations had lead only to disappointment. With much lower expectations, I returned from that encounter with less anger, less resentment, and even the occasional pleasant surprise. Yes, I could have avoided that situation over the years, but that would have led to guilt, which could have been a different reason for spending thousands of dollars in therapy.

I know that managers have to have a way to measure how well their employees are doing. I think the scale of measurement has to be revisited, or there has to be a discussion of what the organization means by "exceeds expectations." Even then, managers and their respective employees need to discuss what "exceeds expectations" means for that individual in that role for that period of time.

The same could be true for anyone who works within a framework of expectations. When I go into a meeting or do a presentation or workshop, I can have expectations only of myself. I cannot impose my expectations on anyone else.

When things don't go as I expect, it's often because I'm trying to force others to conform to my preconceived notions. Of course, they don't know anything of my preconceived notions so they can't possibly conform even if they wanted to.

When I have expectations only of myself, I can adjust my expectations based on how others are behaving, the questions they ask, the responses they have to whatever we're doing. Because, to me, my expectations have to be about me--how well I answer questions, how well I present information, how well I listen, how well I interact with others.

In any instance in which I have expectations, I do so much better when I can acknowledge things might not being going as I expect and even better when I can appreciate the good things that happen instead. I'm not one to spend a lot of time visualizing anyway, but it's entirely possible that my imagination isn't sufficient for the possibilities of what could really happen. Good or bad.

Years and years ago I was working for a small software company. One of the women with whom I worked told me over lunch one day that she didn't think I was a very good friend. I should point out that she was about 15 years older than I. She told me she'd done an experiment with me and that I'd failed because I didn't respond to certain things she said or did the way she expected me to and, as a result, we could be only work colleagues. Which we were. It's not as though we hung out after work or anything. I was flabbergasted, and a little wigged out. I've never forgotten it either.

There are those who will disappoint us. We need to try to understand why we're disappointed: because our expectations, about which they might know nothing, were not met? If so, then what?

An expectation is a strong belief that something will or should happen, or that an individual should or will achieve something. Having expectations isn't right or wrong, good or bad. I don't think we can avoid having expectations, but I can hope I limit my expectations to myself and not impose them on others.

Thursday, August 21

Letting go: Parents and assisted living

I bought my first label maker this week. You might be thinking, "Of course you did. School started this week." But I didn't buy it to put labels on kids' stuff; I bought it to put labels on stuff I'll be sending to my mother in her assisted living facility.

My siblings and I moved the folks to an assisted living facility a few months ago. It was time. It was a decision none of us really wanted to make, but as my sister-in-law stated so very adroitly, "Not moving them is like giving the car keys to a drunk driver." Yes, we were inviting disaster and this was after the store/parking lot incident in which the police were involved and that microwave fire in which the fire department was involved.

We were and are fortunate. The folks have, had, great neighbors. One of the neighbors called me after the fire with that "Everyone is all right but there was a fire" kind of announcement and told me she thought it was imperative I get to Florida as quickly as possible. Which I did. It was only a couple of days later and the folks had mostly forgotten there was a fire by then. Mom had some recollection, but it was, um, faulty.

Anyway, we got them moved. They were not happy. At. All. In fact, my mother stopped speaking to me for several weeks. (I'm the oldest, the one with the legal responsibilities for them, and, according to our care giving medical team, the easiest target.)

It's been a few months. My stepfather seems to be resigned to the situation, but in many ways his living situation hasn't changed markedly. My mother seems much happier now that she's adjusted and is making friends.

Her forgetfulness, her loss of memory hurts me. Even though this is a woman who caused me so much anger, hurt, and frustration as a child through adulthood, it hurts me to see a vibrant personality so diminished.

So I am making labels to put on her things so that when she leaves them places, the nursing and caregiving folks at the assisted living facility will know to whom they belong. Well, and to reduce the possibility of theft because, let's be realistic, it's pretty easy to lift small items from people who are struggling with dementia.

When I bought my label maker, I took the next-to-last one. There was a mom who reached for the last one, muttering about how overwhelmed she was. I glanced over and saw her daughter in the cart, happily going through school supplies. The mom looked at me and said, "It's my first one. I can't believe how much work it is to get her ready for school and how hard it is to let her go." I just nodded.

"Yes," I thought, "it's hard to get them ready for the next stage of their lives and it's hard to let them go and be what they are need to be."

I'm so fortunate that we can afford assisted living for the folks. That their neighbors still, for now, go visit with them occasionally. That we have such a great care giving team for them. That I can worry, just a little less.

Monday, August 11

Of fear and expectations

I'm afraid of falling down the stairs. It's not a completely unreasonable fear. I tend to be accident-prone. I am not the most graceful person you might meet; okay, I'm not really graceful at all, although I can fall well. That fact contributes to part of the nickname lovingly given to me by one of my friends: Joyce Grace. (The "Joyce" takes longer to explain and is really kind of an inside joke.)

What's amusing about my fear is that I live in a two-story house. With a basement. I might not have this fear if I weren't confronted with stairs every day, but I've long been concerned about escalators which are, after all, moving stairs. I'm one of those who does a bit of a stutter before placing my foot on the escalator with any degree of confidence, which is even worse when I've got a suitcase trailing behind me.

It's not the stairs so much as it is the falling. Falling hurts.

When I'm hiking and it's possible to get close to an edge to enjoy a view, I'm nowhere close to that edge. I'm not trying to grip the treeline that's farthest from the edge (think Richard Gere in Pretty Woman), but I'm not going to get too close to the edge. I'm not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling.

Just recently I went for a bike ride with a friend. It was on a bike path with a number of bridges because of the river; the Des Plaines River Trail for those of you in the Chicagoland area. At one point there is a bit of  blind curve followed by a slight incline followed by a bridge. I was in the wrong gear and so tried to power up the incline. Rear tire digging into the path + front tire hitting the metal framing piece between the path and the wooden bridge = me falling. I knew the instant it was going to happen and so I just let it happen. I've fallen a lot and it can be less painful to relax and let gravity have its way. I have a little abrasion on my elbow, a lovely bruise behind my left knee, and a spectacular bruise forming on the outside of my left thigh. And I bumped my head but I was wearing a helmet so there wasn't any damage to the bridge.

I know how much it can hurt to fall from short distances, so I can extrapolate how much it could hurt from heights. And falling down stairs is just asking for broken stuff, or worse. I watch TV and movies; I know what can happen. I speak only partially in jest. So I am cautious walking down stairs, especially the carpeted stairs or the narrow, steeper basement stairs, especially when I'm carrying something. Not neurotic cautious, but cautious.

The day after the bike ride incident, I dropped a plastic window fan on my foot. Left foot, of course. The edge of the fan landed on the joint of my big toe. I have a nice bruise there, of course. It made me laugh. Not because I'm masochistic, but because I was thinking I'm going to break myself bit by bit rather than one big fall down the stairs or a cliff or something else. Even so, I'm cautious.

For some reason--and even I don't try to explain the workings of my brain--that got me to thinking about expectations, but specifically "Expect the unexpected." I suppose that's what caution is all about: trying to forestall the unexpected.

But we can't really expect the unexpected. Not literally (as in "precisely" or "exactly") anyway. We can, however, expect the unexpected figuratively in that we can, in some situations, anticipate that the unexpected could happen.

There is such a thing as too much caution, too much anticipation of the unexpected that could leave us immobilized. That line of thinking got me to thinking about other fears: not doing well on a test or at a task; not being liked; not wearing the right thing; not doing the right thing; not being "successful;" disappointing someone. The list could go on and on, but so many of the things of which I could be afraid are things I project on myself. I've worn the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, and failed more than a few times. I'm sure I've disappointed people and I'm sure there are people who don't like me. I've not done well on tests and I've not done well on some tasks. It happens. Sometimes I've been embarrassed, sometimes I've been hurt.

I don't think my fear of falling down the stairs is (yet) unreasonable as I still go up and down the stairs like a reasonably normal person. But I'm a bit more cautious when I'm carrying something or when I'm in a hurry because I've skidded down those last two carpeted stairs a few times.

We can't avoid getting hurt. We can't avoid being embarrassed at some point in our lives. We cannot avoid hurt, disappointment, and a whole host of negative things. We're going to fall, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively.

When I had my bike accident (and this wasn't my worse, by far), I sat on the ground for a few minutes and did an assessment, especially since my friend had seen me fall and that was probably worse than the fall itself. Elbow? I can move it, but that's going to bruise. Hip and thigh? Yep. I can move but there's going to be a big and colorful bruise there (I think I landed on my phone which, unlike me, was unhurt). Head? Might have a bit of a headache and should follow safety protocol and get a new helmet. Bike? Unharmed. Excellent because that would have been a major bummer. And so I got on my bike and finished the ride. (Then took some ibuprofen and iced stuff when I got home.)

Because that's what we need to do whenever we can. We can expect that there will be the unexpected, the stuff we never see coming. But that's all we can do because the permutations and combinations of the possibilities of the unexpected are mind-boggling. We know we are going to fall on occasion; sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. When we do fall, we need to check for actual damage, take action to minimize the aftermath, and then we keep on keepin' on and expect that we'll try to continue to do nothing less than our best.

Ride on.